Ice Storm Deployment

On December 12, 2008, a regional ice storm knocked out power from thousands of households across eastern MA and southern NH. Many homes were without water, electricity, and heat for over a week.

Westford was one of many MA communities to experience the full brunt of the ice storm,
which uprooted trees and knocked down power lines, obstructing roadways and exposing live electrical wires.

Some residents simply needed a warm place to shower and enjoy meals during the day, returning home to makeshift heating from wood stoves or generators at night. However, many families were entirely displaced from their homes, requiring a safe haven until their power was restored. Brutal temperatures and multiple snowfalls created conditions that rendered their current housing unsafe for vulnerable elders, as well as for those who were medically fragile.

The need for sheltering became more urgent when a snow storm blanketed the area days later. Sub-zero temperatures and slick roads made it dangerous to remain in unheated homes, while- increasing the risk of falls. The weather hampered the ability of highway trucks (left) to clear the streets of debris and downed wires.

Full-service emergency shelters were opened immediately in Westford and Lowell, with 'warming centers' established in other UMV communities. Forty-five MRC members filled 82 shifts around the clock to support continuous staffing at the shelters. The MRC provided surge capacity while working seamlessly with other responders: police, fire, Red Cross, CERT, emergency management, elder services, and municipal agencies.

Members of the Westford fire and police departments worked with three RNs
from the UMV MRC one morning at the Blanchard emergency shelter.

Lowell High School was chosen as the site for sheltering the city's urban population, and also accommodated those without power from neighboring Dracut. Operations were transferred to the smaller Council on Aging facility on the third and last day of service.

Westford opened its shelter at the Blanchard School, caring for up to 37 residents during peak hours. The Blanchard shelter remained open for six days. Both Lowell and Westford shelters provided specialized cots and supplies for those who needed additional care.

The Blanchard shelter offered the cafeteria (above) for meals, socializing, and rest for healthy families. The gym (below) served as a dormitory for vulnerable elders and those with special needs. Many residents in this group required cots with extra cushions, and the ability to raise the head or foot of the cot.

The UMV MRC ensured that one medical and one non-medical member were on site at all times in the Westford shelter. The unit provided volunteers as requested in Lowell.

Medical members provided direct patient care. This required monitoring the overall health of residents at the shelter, anticipating and preventing problems, and taking action whenever issues arose. Medical conditions can be aggravated when vulnerable people are under stress and their schedules are disrupted, which was especially the case during the upheaval of temporary lodging in the ice storm disaster.

Some residents benefited from subdued lights, softer cushioning, and flexible cots.

Non-medical volunteers assisted with registration of shelter visitors and staff, communication, and other tasks as needed.

UMV MRC volunteers provided administrative support and helped to serve meals.

The UMV MRC was better able to respond purely by having over 540 members with diverse skills. This sheer number was essential, because members were enduring the same power outages as everyone else in their community. MRC staff needed to make more calls across a wider geographic area, to reach volunteers who still had power and could deploy. Many were enlisted from towns that suffered less impact from the storm.

Several communities in nearby Region 4A hadn't lost power, so the UMV MRC was able to supplement its response as needed through other units.

This shift at the Lowell High School shelter shows the care of elderly residents by MRC members from the Upper Merrimack Valley (left) and Region 4A (right). Some communities southwest of the UMV never lost power.

The call-out was further complicated because municipal offices in Westford, including the Health Department, had also lost power. Thus the Internet, e-mail, Comcast cable and phone services were inaccessible. Our unit's preferred deployment method -- sending an e-mail blast to hundreds of UMV MRC members at once -- was therefore disabled.

Furthermore, hundreds of members didn't have phone service, and had no power to access their answering machines or recharge cell phone batteries. The solution? Armed with a printed copy of member contact data, MRC staff simply kept calling down the list of members until the shifts for each day were filled.

Some displaced residents remained at the shelter for nearly a week, until it was safe to move back to more permanent facilities. The last resident to leave was eager for her return to a home environment.

The ice storm was the subject of intense media coverage throughout the week. News reporters interviewed the last local resident to leave the Blanchard shelter, where she had received care for six consecutive days.

The UMV MRC held a debriefing session in early January and invited comments from shelter participants, to include in the Westford Health Department's section of the town's After Action Report.

Shelter volunteers met to share their experiences in a debriefing for the town's After Action Report. They were also thanked by the staff, received certificates of appreciation, and enjoyed a festive cake in honor of their service.


Upper Merrimack Valley Medical Reserve Corps, 23 Depot Street, Westford, MA 01886